Nadia Eghbal

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Shamelessness as a strategy

I’ve enjoyed playing a game called Avalon recently. I won’t go too far into the rules, but it’s a hidden role game in the vein of Secret Hitler or Werewolf, where one team is “good”, trying to uncover who among them is “evil”, before the evil team wins.

One of the characters you can play is Merlin. Merlin knows who the evil players are, but can’t reveal what he knows, because the evil team can kill Merlin and win the game. So Merlin relies on another character, Percival, to be his decoy.

Percival’s only power is that he knows who Merlin is. So he secretly watches Merlin’s actions throughout the game and amplifies those signals to the rest of the group. The typical strategy is for Percival to attract attention away from Merlin and towards himself.

But another, riskier strategy is for Merlin to play as though he is Percival. In this case, Merlin displays what he knows so shamelessly that he throws everyone off. The evil team, believing that no Merlin would be stupid enough to put himself out there like that, figures he must be Percival, and writes him off.

The Merlin-as-Percival strategy is bold, because it blatantly defies our expectations about how the game is won. To pull it off, Merlin must create confusion around his actions. He needs the other players to feel unsure about whether he’s being incredibly stupid or incredibly smart.

Increasingly, I think the “shameless” approach is becoming a dominant strategy today. It was first popularized in modern canon by Paris Hilton, who played the “dumb blonde heiress” stereotype so smoothly that everyone assumed she really was as stupid as she seemed.

Paris didn’t play by the “obvious” rules for famous people. She was widely derided by both media and her peers as at best, a train wreck, and at worst, a self-serving aggrandizer. And yet, people couldn’t stop talking about her. A decade later, Paris is now remembered as the mastermind behind the playbook that’s made the Kardashians, Jenners, and other celebrity socialites so successful.

It’s important to note that people were dismissive of Paris because validating her playbook would mean admitting that they were playing an inferior game. Everyone else had invested years into optimizing for the most legible version of the rules. They’d look silly if they were to admit she had found a better way of doing things.

Without getting into tiresome politics, the “shameless” strategy also defined the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It was shouted down by people in both established political parties, because they were used to playing by the “obvious” rules, but I suspect that in a decade’s time, we’ll look back on that election and realize that it marked the beginning of an entirely new style of politics.

Ditto to, perhaps, the leadership styles of Mark Zuckerberg, who’s followed the “obvious” playbook for years, versus Jack Dorsey, who employs tactics that seem so obviously stupid (tweeting about fasting and meditation!) that we’re quick to write them off. And yet, I’d guess that Zuckerberg’s strategy makes him increasingly unlikeable and untrustworthy, in the same way that any major politician sticking to a pre-2016 playbook today is almost certainly not going to win.

The shameless strategy feels counterintuitive, because our first instinct is to want to punish that sort of behavior. And historically, those sanctions have been effective. Punishing outlandish behavior is an important aspect of cooperative governance: it preserves social order by ensuring that we all play by the same rules.

Today, it seems like punishing shamelessness only increases social rewards to the transgressor. What’s changed?

One explanation might be that it’s an expected effect of the blurring of social boundaries today. In the past, if the size of your community was finitely bounded (like a village, or an aristocratic social class), people didn’t enter or exit these communities as frequently. Under these conditions, sanctions are probably still effective, because members of the community want to be liked and accepted.

But the borders to online communities are much more fluid - perhaps even nonexistent. Under open borders, sanctions will backfire, because they just serve as a signaling boost for the transgressor, attracting outsiders who resonate with that person’s message. What’s meant to be punishment instead becomes a flare shot straight into the night sky.

The “establishment” mistakenly assumes that a shameless person wants the approval of their community, when it turns out that, much like any cult or counterculture, that person’s goal was to attract a following, regardless of who the members are. The disgust of one’s peers doesn’t matter anymore, because that disgust forms the basis for an entirely new community.

A common critique of shameless people is questioning their intelligence. But one of the most bizarre aspects here is it doesn’t actually matter how aware that person is of what they’re doing. The concept of a “genius mastermind” is itself outdated, because it assumes that someone needs to be in control. The shameless person is simply a host for a set of ideas, which, like any virus, will continue to propagate as long as there are willing hosts to receive it.

I’m not really sure what the long-term implications of shamelessness will be. I also don’t think that everybody has to employ this strategy to win (at least, I hope not!). But what I do know is when I see my peers rolling their eyes at someone or deriding them for being “shameless”, there’s a good chance that, instead of writing them off, we should examine their actions a bit more closely.